Maybe the office is too hot. Or the boss is an insecure person who allows employees little freedom. Or a small headache -- combined with a day of staring at a computer, has turned into a throbbing nightmare.
Workplace stress is a common result of modern office life.
Studies show that office stress can increase absenteeism, affect people's concentration, decrease productivity and lead to health problems such as chronic colds and heart disease, said Robert Rosen, a clinical psychologist and senior associate at the Washington Business Group on Health.
Sources of stress on the job range from personal and family distractions to working in repetitive, dead-end jobs. People in clerical or data entry positions may suffer more stress because they have little control over their working environment.
An airline flight reservation agent suffered what one worker rights group calls a "VDT nervous breakdown." "She was constantly monitored by her employer, and the computer kept track of how often she was on the machine," said Sharon Danann, research director of the Cleveland-based 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women. "It got to the point where the employer stood behind her as she was doing her job."
More than 80 percent of clerical workers are women, according to 9 to 5.
Companies are now paying more attention to employee stress, its causes, and how that stress affects productivity. Some businesses simply distribute educational pamphlets; others offer more extensive programs, including exercise facilities and personal counseling.
One option for individuals to reduce the amount of stress in their life is to develop coping skills, said 9 to 5's Danann. "Coping skills are forms of relaxation and exercise, talking with other people, joining support organizations and making time for oneself. Exercise provides two functions -- it gives people time alone and provides a way to let out frustration."
Doing exercises at your desk, taking frequent breaks if you are looking at a terminal all day and using more comfortable and physically supporting office furniture are all part of a number of recommended strategies to make office life more tolerable.
But organizations like 9 to 5 think the real solutions lie in designing jobs that give people the chance to move around.
When someone sits for an extended time, "circulation is impeded, people get back and shoulder pain . . . and the muscles used to keep a person stationary tire more quickly," said Jerome Danoff, professor of physical therapy at Howard University and a research consultant for Rehabilitation Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. "We are designed to move, and we distribute forces more effectively when moving around."
So called "ergonomic" furniture designed to reduce body stress and be more comfortable may have just the opposite effect because people may move around less and increase the muscle strain, Danoff said.
And then there are the less traditional solutions. The Center for Office Health and Productivity Enhancement in Silver Spring has developed a system that allows a person to exercise and work simultaneously.
The work station, devised by center director Nathan Edelson, includes a treadmill that can be turned off when not in use. A secondary video screen allows the worker to view different nature scenes, such as waves breaking off cliffs, or check out the afternoon soaps.
"The idea is not to bombard people with a superfluous amount of information but to let them select just that level most appropriate to productive and happy functioning," Edelson said. "The systems are designed to relieve depression."
Physical confinement, sedentary activity and mental understimulation together produce the stress that causes job burnout, said Edelson.
The price for one of these systems starts at $3,500 and goes up, said Edelson. "These stations can be used for an individual or used in a pool type situation where one is provided for five or six people." In experiments on five people, he said, persons of "average ability" did not have trouble typing while walking in place.
Although an interesting idea, such a system may not be in keeping with the decorum of most business offices, 9 to 5's Danann said.
Companies that give people more opportunity to make decisions and a chance to vent their dissatisfaction are providing solutions to the problem of stress, Washington Business Group on Health's Rosen said. His recommendations for employers:
Give workers more information about the nature of the organization. Unexpected changes are stressful.
Make people feel good about themselves.
Be flexible about work and family policies.
"Increasingly, offices today are becoming the factories of the past, and we need to create jobs that are less stressful," Rosen said, "particularly for people on the lower end of the pay scale."